Pebble-size hail pelted Kurt Kuznicki’s hard hat as he shoveled away rocks that someone had fashioned into a fire ring on Griffith Peak.
It was Thursday near the 11,056-foot summit in Mount Charleston Wilderness. Other than nearby Charleston Peak and Mummy Mountain several miles away, it is the third tallest peak in Southern Nevada and not an easy place to reach even though it’s only some 40 miles from Las Vegas.
To get there, it’s a 4,000-foot climb up seeming endless switchbacks on a narrow trail through an alpine forest topped with twisted, gnarly trunks of some of the oldest living things on the planet: a stand of bristlecone pines that have survived for thousands of years in the mountain’s thin air through harsh, windy winters on rugged, limestone outcroppings.
Hikers had set fire some time ago to branches and wood from these ancient trees, and questions smoldered in Kuznicki’s mind.
Were the hikers freezing cold? We’re they stranded? Did they even know these bristlecone pines are protected? Why didn’t they bring a camp stove?
“You know for five minutes of warmth, why are you going to burn a 1,000-year-old tree? Think about it,” Kuznicki said as he chipped away at the fire ring.
Sure, the campfires didn’t cause devastation like this week’s deadly blazes in Southern California, but on a scale of time their toll on the fragile landscape of the slow-growing bristlecones is nonetheless significant.
Releasing some of his frustration, Kuznicki, who is wilderness program director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, occasionally took a large rock or charred chunk of bristlecone from the fire ring and heaved it down the ridge.
A few feet away, John Hiatt, a longtime local environmentalist and wildlands advocate, scooped up charcoal from the pit barehanded and shoved it into a yellow, plastic bag.
With at least five other fire rings within a dozen yards, Hiatt doubted the campers had constructed them in a makeshift effort to survive. More likely, they were recreational hikers who spent a night or two under the stars not knowing their campfires were destroying what took centuries to create.
The fire rings, he said, had probably been built in the last two years.
Over time, campers had used them to cook food. There was a blackened grill left behind. Less than a half mile away, others had left behind slow-degrading litter, everything from metal can lids to non-native peach pits, peanut shells and banana chips.
By dismantling the fire rings, Hiatt hoped others will be discouraged from using the protected wood for campfire fuel and bring with them things that are left behind as litter.
“Future generations will never know what this is like if we continue on that path,” Hiatt said about the stand of bristlecones. “This is one of very few places in the country where this is.”
Another place where bristlecones thrive in Nevada is Great Basin National Park. Bristlecone pine groves there are protected as well and the National Park Service stresses that its wood on the ground may be thousands of years old and important scientifically.
“Please leave all bristlecone pine wood in place,” the service’s pamphlet reads.
The pamphlet goes on to explain that the Forest Service granted a scientist permission in 1964 to take tree-ring core samples from several bristlecones and cut one down in Wheeler Peak of what later became the park.
In hindsight, the decision was regrettable.
The bristlecone pine, dubbed Prometheus, had 4,900 growth rings, meaning it was at least that old and the oldest known living tree at the time. Now scientists believe one in California’s White Mountains, estimated to be 4,600 years old, is the oldest known living tree.
Bristlecone pines are found in 20 different mountain ranges in Nevada.
Before Hiatt and Kuznicki set out, Suzanne Shelp, a forestry technician for the U.S. Forest Service, explained that people who use bristlecone pines for firewood, even logs and branches in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest that have been taken from trees that appear dead or dying, can be cited for violation of federal code for damage to natural resources.
As little as one twig per incident can result in a court appearance, a fine of $250, or both.
“A lot of people just don’t know,” she said.
“When they walk past that wilderness sign, they just don’t know the difference. And with increased visitation, one person takes something, then another. It’s a cumulative effect,” Shelp said.
Hikers who want to make campfires should check Forest Service regulations as to what restrictions might be in place.
To prevent future occurrences, Friends of Nevada Wilderness in cooperation with the Forest Service and other volunteers, plan to monitor the Spring Mountains natural resources.
“We’re going to get volunteers who love this place … and have a sense of ownership,” Kuznicki said.
“I don’t want anybody up here tearing off chunks of bristlecone and throwing them in the fire,” he said.
After all, the 43,000-acre wilderness with its mix of bristlecone, limber pines, white fir, mountain maples, wild flowers and aspen trees is a special place.
“If Mount Charleston was east of the Mississippi, it would be a national park,” Kuznicki said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.view slide show